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The China-Taiwan Confrontation over Corona Response and Taiwan's Security

Makoto Ogata
Former Chief of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association in Taipei

A New Threat from the Mainland

In Taiwan, people say, "threats come from the mainland." On December 31, 2019, just before the Taiwanese presidential elections, a new threat dubbed the novel coronavirus ("Wuhan pneumonia" in Taiwanese) came again from the mainland. Moreover, one misfortune invited another. On January 2, a UH60M Blackhawk helicopter, carrying aboard a party of Chief of Staff Shen Yi-ming on the way for a cheer-up visit to some units before the Chinese New Year, crashed in the mountains of northeastern Taiwan, and eight people including Chief of Staff Shen died. The tragic incident happened in the wake of the enactment by the Tsai Ing-wen administration of the "Anti-Infiltration Act" on December 31, which aims to prevent the intervention and penetration of foreign hostile forces into Taiwan. Rumors went around about whether all of these are machinations of China: one is a deliberate leakage of some bioweapon, and the other a beheading operation by China against Chief of Staff Shen.

In Taiwan, the presidential and legislative elections take place in early January once every four years; there is a long transition period of four months until the presidential inauguration ceremony on May 20. In the case of government change, this period is called "political vacuum." The outgoing administration continues to remain in a lame-duck state; the next administration has yet to be established. In terms of politics and security, the transition period is pointed out to be a crucial problem. The fight against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) coincided with such a transition period. With the momentum generated from its victory in the elections, the Tsai administration united the people, acquired integrative force, and led its COVID-19 control operations to success. However, if the "political vacuum" and the assault of COVID-19 infections had coincided, the result would have been diametrically different. In this sense, Taiwan was lucky. But Taiwan's happiness is China's misery. China accused Taiwan of "aiming at independence under the pretext of controlling the epidemic" and further intensified pressure on Taiwan.

"Measures" and "Timeline" for the Unification of Taiwan

The "Anti-Secession Law" was enacted in 2005 to "prevent the independence of Taiwan." It gave a warning to the Chen Shui-bian administration that leaned more toward the independence of Taiwan. The law divided "unification measures" into "peaceful measures" and "non-peaceful means." It provides that "peaceful measures" should mean the development of cross-strait relations through the movement of residents; direct communication, traffic, and trade; economic exchanges, etc., and through discussing the termination of hostility, thereby peacefully unifying Taiwan. The law also provides concrete procedural steps toward that end. Contrarily, there is no specific mention of "non-peaceful measures." The term "non-peaceful measures" is an expression that insinuates the use of force. But "non-peaceful measures" may not immediately mean the use of force but should be considered to represent all possible measures except the process of peaceful unification. In other words, they are generally understood to include step by step measures leading to a full-scale armed invasion, such as economic sanctions, armed intimidation, and limited use of force. China argues that its efforts to achieve the unification of Taiwan by peaceful measures and those to "prevent the independence of Taiwan" by leaving room for the use of force are not conflicting measures but complementary and compatible with each other, thus constituting policy measures to achieve the complete unification of Taiwan. This is to suggest that "non-peaceful measures" may be considered to be a risk hedge to keep Taiwan on the path of peaceful unification; if Taiwan moves toward its independence, China will strengthen "non-peaceful measures" step by step.

Since the establishment of the Tsai administration, the Xi Jinping administration has pushed back cross-strait relations to the "cold peace," and the process of peaceful unification has been at a standstill. China will never lower the banner of "peaceful unification, one country, two systems." She is making full use of the ambiguous nature and a free hand associated with "non-peaceful measures" as a risk hedge to keep a firm hold on Taiwan, thereby steadily strengthening practicable measures.

On January 2, 2019, Xi Jinping clarified his comprehensive Taiwan policy or "Xi's Five Points" at a gathering to commemorate the 40th anniversary of issuing the "Message to Compatriots in Taiwan," and changed the unification policy from the conventional "prevention of independence" to the "promotion of unification," setting the "timeline of unification." Xi linked the unification of Taiwan with the "Chinese Dream." He demonstrated a strong will to achieve the unification of Taiwan during his tenure in office. Moreover, he added the term "Taiwanese version" to the "one country, two systems" that Taiwanese people refused to accept, while unilaterally redefining the "1992 consensus" that was an agreement to which the CPC and the Kuomintang gave different interpretations. Taiwan construes "Xi's Five Points" as a declaration that China will, regardless of Taiwanese people's opinions or which political party gains power in Taiwan, achieve "complete unification of the motherland" by the 2049 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC .

From "Peaceful Unification" to "Armed Intimidation"

At the end of 2016, when the Tsai administration was inaugurated, the "Global Times" --- a daily tabloid newspaper under the influence of the CPC's People's Daily --- held an annual meeting in Beijing. At the meeting, retired major general Wang Zaixi, former deputy director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, gave a noteworthy statement: "Thirty years are the limit for us to leave the Taiwan issue intact. The possibility of peaceful unification continues to decline. The present state corresponds to the situation where the possibility of peaceful unification has completely vanished, as provided by the Anti-Secession Law. Historically, the "Beijing model" (see Note below) has something to turn to for guidance. In 1949, the Communist Party forces besieged Beijing defended by the Kuomintang and made the enemy forces surrender through negotiations with no bloodshed."

On December 21, last year, just before Taiwan's presidential elections, the "Global Times" held an annual meeting. On that occasion, retired lieutenant general Wang Hongguang, former deputy commander of the Nanjing Military Region, who is known as a hawkish debater, referred to the unification of Taiwan following the "Nanjing model" (see Note below). Wang stated, "There is no room for the "one country, two systems" to take root in Taiwan. The window for peaceful unification has completely closed. The "Nanjing model" may be the most suitable option to be chosen to unify Taiwan. We will capture three islands of Taiwan --- Dongyin Island, Pratas Islands, and Pescadores Islands ---, thereby terrifying Taiwan into surrendering."

What is worrisome to China is the changing stance of the Tsai administration rather than the reelection of President Tsai. In her first term, Tsai said, "We will promote communication, avoid provocation, and prevent unexpected situations." Regarding the 1992 consensus also, she made a maximum concession: "We will respect the historical fact that both sides reached some common understanding." In her second term, however, she took up a different stance: "We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China, Taiwan. We don't need to declare ourselves an independent state." At a seminar to mark the 15th anniversary of Anti-Secession Law implementation held on May 29, General Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission, said, "We do not promise to abandon the use of force, but reserve the option to take all necessary measures not only to stabilize and control the situation in the Taiwan Strait but to keep the cross-strait relations on the track of peaceful development." His statement seems to insinuate that China will intensify the armed intimidation as a risk hedge.

Responses of the PLA and Taiwan's Armed Forces to COVID-19

Xi Jinping gave the PLA instructions regarding the prevention and control of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on January 24, which fell between the Wuhan blockade (January 23) and the Chinese New Year (January 25). The PLA immediately began the deployment of medical units belonging to their three branches (ground force, navy, and air force) in Wuhan and dispatched a total of more than 4,000 medical staff by April 15, when the units' withdrawal ended. However, the PLA's main task was to help improve medical capabilities in Hubei province, focused exclusively on medical support at the three newly established hospitals including Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan. As many as 346 medical support teams were formed across the country, and a medical staff numbering 42,600 was deployed in Hubei Province. The PLA medical personnel accounted for less than ten percent of the total number. The PLA engaged in the transportation of medical staff and resources to Wuhan by large-sized transport aircraft, rail, and car, the installation of approximately 3,000 beds at 63 hospitals around the country, and the deployment of about 10,000 nursing personnel. Thus, it provided support to the front-line epidemic prevention and control work. The PLA General Hospital's 5th Medical Center, which is in charge of CBR weapons, took care of critically ill patients. Mobile teams organized by the Hospital examined the infection status and engaged in the prevention of COVID-19 at more than 100 bases nationwide. It was an all-out fight against COVID-19, mobilizing available resources and personnel. However, the PLA's role in it was limited. This may be explained as follows: the CPC alone possesses the command of the PLA; the leadership of the State Council and local governments that engaged in the prevention of COVID-19 does not have the authority to mobilize the PLA. There are also structural problems, such as the obscurity of institutional coordination functions.

Information on the infection status in the PLA is unavailable. On February 9-10, 2020, H-6 bombers, J-11 fighters, and KJ-500 early warning aircraft advanced into the eastern airspace of Taiwan via the Bashi Channel; they flew southward from the Miyako Strait down along the middle line of the Taiwan Strait and temporarily crossed it into the Taiwanese airspace on February 10. On the same day, a spokesman for the Eastern Theater Command of the PLA issued a statement saying, "The Eastern Theater Command conducted cruising training of sea and air forces. It aimed at frustrating Taiwan's independence movement." Yet, no such naval activity took place. China planned this training as the manifestation of its intense discontent with Vice President William Lai's visit to the United States (February 2-10). It seems that the COVID-19 infection hindered PLA naval ships from participating in the event. The February 17 issue of the "People's Liberation Army Daily" (domestic version) reported, "Many soldiers of the Eastern Theater Command stay under quarantine observation, including Yu Songqiu, captain of the guided-missile frigate ‘Changzhou.'" On February 28, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense said, "The PLA is striving to implement both military training and infection prevention measures. As for the military training, the PLA has established the order of training compatible with efforts to prevent the coronavirus infection, including the postponement of some large-scale exercises. The PLA also has taken measures to organize unit training differentiated according to the risk level of infection." On April 12, six naval ships, including the aircraft carrier "Liaoning," entered the South China Sea via the eastern waters of Taiwan and the Bashi Channel and conducted exercises. At that time, a coronavirus outbreak occurred aboard a US aircraft carrier and impeded its activities. The PLA seems to have also suffered a certain degree of infection and isolation. But it continued both intimidations against Taiwan and warnings against the United States, emphasizing that COVID-19 did not affect its operations at all.

For the Ministry of National Defense of Taiwan, the movement of the PLA, in the midst ofthe corona crisis, especially its unusual behavior, is of utmost concern. Following the policy that "coronavirus prevention efforts and military operations are equally important," the Ministry shouldered part of coronavirus prevention efforts while coping with China's growing military threats and provocations. On March 25, major general Guo Xianchen, chief of Communications Development Office of the Ministry of National Defense, stated at the Legislative Yuan, "Observations of the PLA behavior over the past two months indicate no visible change in the PLA navy and air force units even under the corona infection. However, large-scale exercises of ground forces are in temporary suspension; small unit training alone continues. Information we have gathered on the PLA has revealed no unusual trend."

As a legacy of SARS, Taiwan established the "National Health Command Center" (NHCC) in 2004 modelled on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The NHCC was incorporated into the command system of the armed forces. Based on the Communicable Disease Control Act and the Enforcement Regulations Governing the Central Epidemic Command Center, the division of roles in response to COVID-19 was determined as follows. The Deputy Minister of National Defense for Armaments (lieutenant general) should, as an NHCC Deputy Commander, properly carry out communicable disease prevention in cooperation with the relevant departments of the Ministry of National Defense. The Chief of the Medical Affairs Bureau (major general) should, as an NHCC executive officer, be responsible for communicable disease prevention efforts of military medical organizations. A Deputy Chief of the General Staff (lieutenant general) should, as an NHCC executive officer, be responsible for military mobilization and support missions in the military command system. The Ministry of National Defense activated an "epidemic response command center" on January 22, and the Chief of the Medical Affairs Bureau urged five military general hospitals and their regional branch hospitals to implement epidemic prevention, treatment, and information dissemination activities. He also ordered the Institute of Preventive Medicine of the National Defense Medical Center to implement sample testing and vaccine development. The Deputy Chief of the General Staff mobilized about 57,000 active soldiers and about 13,000 reserves to help increase mask production in private factories, and also ordered the 33rd Chemical Warfare Group of the 6th Army Corps to assume the national command function, charter airplanes for the repatriation of Taiwanese citizens, and carry out disinfecting activities in city areas. The Engineering Corps renovated old barracks into depressurized isolation rooms; the Transport Corps provided support for the transportation of medical and civilian supplies. In preparation for the outbreak of infection and the blockade of cities, the Military Police worked on plans to maintain social order in cooperation with the police, secure necessary equipment for medical staff, and transport daily necessities to lockdown cities.

In the meantime, about 400 officers and soldiers, including two generals, who returned from military exchanges abroad, were isolated at home for two weeks, but no infected case was found. On April 18, a mass infection was detected among the crew of the newest transport ship "Panshih" that returned to Kaohsiung from a goodwill training voyage to Palau. Eventually, the number of infected cases reached 36. An investigation revealed that the infection had occurred before the departure of the ship for the training voyage. Fortunately, no community-acquired infection was reported. Among the officers punished for this blunder included a navy commander, a fleet commander, and a training squadron commander.

The corona crisis has made it clear that the PLA is the CPC's military and is not suitable to address an extraordinary disaster like the corona pandemic due to the lack of clarity of the command relationship between the CPC and the state administration. On the other hand, the Taiwanese Armed Forces, as a democratic nation's military, serve the state and the people, with systems and capabilities to respond to both traditional and non-traditional threats.

The China-Taiwan Confrontation and Face Mask Diplomacy

China perceives the cross-strait competition over corona-related foreign aid as an inter-regime competition; it looks upon Taiwan as a minion of the West that challenges the superiority of Chinese-style governance. Taiwan's success was unpredictable and unacceptable to Beijing and aroused the latter's vehement anger and jealousy. The April 10 issue of the "Global Times" carried an editorial titled "The world rushing into the time of difficulties; stay put, Taiwan." The editorial warned that "Taiwan's frivolous behavior will confront it with real danger in the new post-corona world." It concluded with the sentence, "We won't allow Taiwan to say it wasn't given a warning." The same expression appeared in the May 29 issue of the "People's Daily." This phrase is said to be used as a cliché when China seriously decides to open a war; China used it on the occasion of the Sino-Indian border Conflict in 1962, the Damansky Island conflict with the former Soviet Union in 1969, and the Sino-Vietnamese conflict in 1979. In each case, a dispute developed into an armed conflict.

In the first half of 2020, the PLA Navy and Air Force's activities around Taiwan were reported 17 times in total. On May 12, Kyodo News reported from Beijing that "the PLA is planning an exercise in the South China Sea in August to capture the Pratas Islands." The Pratas Islands are a strategic point located at the southern end of the Taiwan Strait, near the Bashi Channel and the entrance to the South China Sea. Outside the southwestern end of the Taiwan air defense identification zone (ADIZ), they are the islets that retired lieutenant general Wang Hongguang declared that China would capture following the "Nanjing model." On June 9, when a US military C-40A transport aircraft that took off from the Kadena Air Base passed through Taiwan's airspace with its approval, China reacted strongly, "Illegal and serious provocation that violates our sovereignty and security." After that, Chinese aircraft repeated invasions ten times in total by July 10 into the southwestern area of Taiwan's ADIZ. Taiwan offered the analysis that those actions of the PLA were aimed at making the invasion into Taiwan's ADIZ a fait accompli through the normalization of military training, and at confirming or modifying their attack plan against the Pratas Islands through checking the response time of Taiwan air force jets and their flight routes. Reportedly, in early June, a mixed brigade under the 73rd Group Army of the PLA conducted a berthing/landing drill and a live-fire exercise. Meanwhile, in July, the 99th Brigade of the Taiwan Navy-Marine Corps was dispatched to the Pratas Islands in the 36th Han Kuang exercise and carried out a defense operations exercise. On September 9-10, the PLA conducted a sea-air joint drill in the southwestern part of Taiwan's ADIZ. Judging from the diagram used by the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense for the press briefing, the purpose of the exercise was to drive it home to Taiwan that it is impossible to defend the Pratas Islands. Incidentally, when the Ministry of National Defense submits a budget plan for the next fiscal year to the Legislative Yuan in August every year, it also presents a report on military forces of Communist China. From its 2018 edition, it carries a passage that "Communist China owns the operational capability of seizing Taiwan's remote islands."

Impacts on Taiwan's Security

Next July, Chinese people will celebrate the first of the two centenaries --- in 2021 the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China and, in 2049 the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Until then, would Xi Jinping not seek concrete results that would serve as a milestone leading to the second centenary? This year marks the final year of the PLA's organizational reform launched in 2015, as well as the goal year for "realizing mechanization, advancing informatization, and improving strategic capabilities of the PLA" declared at the 19th National Congress of the CPC. Taiwan sees China as likely to conduct some large-scale exercises to demonstrate the achievement of these goals. This is the reason why the seizure of the Pratas Islands is debated as a problem that can happen.

As the US-China relationship is heading for a full-scale confrontation, the activities of US warships and aircraft around Taiwan are increasing, while the PLA's advance into the Western Pacific Ocean is becoming more than frequent. If the PLA gradually escalated provocation against US warships and aircraft and Taiwanese scramble jets, an unexpected accident would immediately heighten military tension. What is still fresh in our memory in this regard includes a mid-air collision incident between a PLA J-8II fighter jet and a US Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft that occurred over Hainan Island in 2001 and PLA aircraft's repeated abnormal approach to JASDF fighter jets in 2014. In recent years, China has been more inclined to develop obstructive behavior by paramilitary means, which may fall under so-called grey-zone incidents. Taiwan is concerned that Chinese fishing boats carrying maritime militias aboard will surround the Taiwan Coast Guard's patrol boats or venture to land Taiwan's remote islands under cover of night.

Contrary to Xi Jinping's pledge to pursue the unification of Taiwan and mainland China, Taiwan is moving away in the opposite direction. Currently, China's unification efforts are evolving in a complex manner of encompassing multiple areas --- military, politics, economy, and society. However, the corona crisis has provided Taiwan with an opportunity to advance the overall "de-sinicization" of Taiwan. In terms of politics, economy, society, etc., China's unification efforts cannot achieve the same effects as before; there is a possibility that China will likely resort to military means as the only option left. China is strengthening step by step its "non-peaceful measures" as a risk hedge to hold Taiwan to "peaceful unification." We worry about an outburst at the moment when the hedge is finally gone.


One of the armed liberation models of large cities during the Chinese Civil War.

  • The "Beijing model" is a "peaceful liberation model," exemplified by the bloodless surrender of Beijing.
  • The "Nanjing model" is a "model of liberation by armed intimidation," adopting a long-distance siege and a limited use of force.
  • The "Tianjin model" is a "model of liberation by armed invasion," adopting a full-scale attack.
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